String up the lights and plug in the turntables, tonight, December 19th at The Paper Box in Brooklyn is the Seventh Annual Yule Prog. The brainchild of New York underground cornerstone Uncommon Nasa, every December for the better part of a decade has seen New York underground luminaries take the stage, as well as left-field MCs from all over the country unite in Brooklyn for an evening of outside-the-box hip-hop. Among the many names to play the event on their way to being blog darlings have been Ka, Despot, Homeboy Sandman, Open Mike Eagle and The Brown Bag All Stars. This year’s installment sees immensely influential underground heavyweights Breeze Brewin and Rob Sonic co-headlining with indie-rap favorite Billy Woods’ new project with Elucid, Armand Hammer. We spoke to Uncommon Nasa about Yule Prog’s origin and what the past six years have meant to New York hip-hop.
What was the genesis of Yule Prog?
In 2007, I kind of just wanted to throw a show. I was offered a date in December, and that’s how the show got started. To do a show in December, I had to come up with a hook to make people want to come to the show because it’s a busy type of year. I came up with Yule Prog because I’ve always represented progressive hip-hop and that’s what I feel New York needs, especially in 2007, this left-field kind of showcase where I could put all the people that I knew together. Yule Prog, as a show, is meant to be sort of a circus free-for-all festival that’s controlled chaos. You come to the show, you’re going to see anywhere from 10-14 acts and they’re all going to be rapid fire very interesting people that you may have heard of or that you may not have heard of.
How did the first show set the tone for Yule Progs to follow?
That first year I was able to get Beans from Antipop Consortium to be the headliner and that kind of kicked it off. We had a ton of acts and each act brought a certain type of people through. All these crevases of the underground scene in New York got shown for one night. People from different aspects of the left field scene, we always like to mix-and-match so the different people in the crowd can start mingling as well as the people on stage.
And that one was at Public Assembly, correct?
Yes, that first one was at Public Assembly, which was called Galapagoes at the time. The next year we went to Southpaw and we became really ambitious the second year. We did a battle night at Public Assembly and a full show at Southpaw the next night. From there it took off, we did it every year at Southpaw until it closed down, last year we took it back to Public Assembly and now we’re at The Paper Box.
Would you say there’s big difference between those early Yule Progs and this one, or could these previous line-ups be interchangeable?
No, I don’t think they can be interchanged. I think we’ve represented the times in New York and grown with the times. Last year we had Ka headline. The definition of what is “Left,” what is “underground,” what it “progressive” changes over the years and we’ve had artists that have gone on to big things and artists we’ve caught on their way to be bigger. At Yule Prog 5 we had Open Mike Eagle for one of the first shows he did in New York. We had Meyhem Lauren on that same show, a burgeoning New York artist and a burgeoning LA artist. Last year we had Ka as a headliner who put out the best album of the past ten years. This year, Breeze Brewin of the Juggaknots is re-emerging as a solo artist and it’s going to be really dope. Every year is different.
What makes this year’s Yule Prog stand out?
This year’s theme, if you want to call it that, is the Old and the New. You have Rob Sonic and Breeze Brewin, who are both New York acts who don’t play that often. These are not acts that you’re just going to see on a Thursday night. It’s a special thing that they’re playing her. And you have them matched with Armand Hammer, guys who play New York often, who are taking over the horizon. This year is very New York-centric but we also got Tomorrow Kings coming in from Chicago, we have Taiyamo Denku, who is on my label, coming from Milwaukee, we have Brzowski coming from Portland, Maine. There’s something for everybody and that’s the point of why you would come to a show like this. If you know Breeze Brewin, and that’s why you would come, then get there early so you can see all these other acts and have fun. I think we have 11 or 12 acts this year, and to the best of my ability they’re going to come on and off that stage in a three hour period. We have two sets of turntables set-up so there’s no real waiting around. It’s all about trying to throw a flawless entertaining show.
Are there any Yule Prog shows that stand out from the past?
I think last year, Ka’s performance was incredible. To be able to have that dude come out and play songs that are now considered classics live for Yule Prog. There are people who have come to Yule Prog every year. We’ve had so many people, Homeboy Sandman, Vast Aire, Despot. We had a guy named Zesto play a couple of years ago, who hasn’t done music in a little while, but Zesto was brilliant. He was set-up with keyboards and drum machines and rapping at the same time as playing them. This dude was doing that back in ’08/’09 and I remember it like it was yesterday. You might see something like that this year. I think the energy is there and artists just vibe off the company and the respect is there. What we (Uncommon Records, Backwoodz Studios and Reservoir Sounds) is we all collectively try to do something special. That’s why there’s so many acts on the bill and that’s why it happens so quickly. It’s not interesting, in my opinion, to watch two acts that you like do half-hour sets. It’s more interesting to watch 12 sets, and you only know who five or seven of them are, and they all rock for fifteen minutes. To me, that’s exciting. That’s what this thing is.
Is there anyone who’s performed at every Yule Prog?
I’ve performed at every one, which is an adventure in itself, both in a group and solo. I’m pretty sure that Billy Woods has, in one form or another, performed at every one. So, find me another annual show where Billy Woods, who has really come to fruition and gotten his due in the past year or so for doing what he’s always done, playing every year. Those are the kind of things that happen at this show, it’s for those who are in-tune and those who are trying to be in-tune.